Russia Rejects U.S. Appeal on Iran
Saturday, April 22, 2006
The United States appealed anew to Russia yesterday to stop the sale of air-defense missile systems to Iran, but Moscow reiterated its intention to proceed with the deal.
The public dispute underscored the considerable difficulty still confronting the Bush administration as it looks for ways to intensify international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
At a news conference in Washington yesterday, the State Department's third-highest-ranking officer, R. Nicholas Burns, said the time has come for countries "to use their leverage with Iran" and halt exports of weapons and nuclear-related technologies. He singled out the sale of 29 Tor-M1 air-defense missile systems to Iran under a $700 million contract announced by Russia in December.
"We hope and we trust that that deal will not go forward, because this is not time for business as usual with the Iranian government," said Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Burns made the same appeal earlier in the week during a visit to Moscow, and he acknowledged yesterday that the Kremlin had already rejected it. Indeed, hours before Burns spoke, a senior Russian official was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency making clear his government's determination to follow through with the delivery of the weapons, which the Russians stress are defensive in nature.
"There are no circumstances that would obstruct fulfillment of our obligations in military-technical cooperation with Iran," said Nikolai Spassky, the deputy head of the Kremlin's Security Council. "This goes for all the obligations we have made, including the commitment to provide Iran with Tor-M1 air defense systems."
In raising the case again yesterday, Burns said the aim was to show that the United States has no intention of dropping it.
In addition to refusing to give up the weapons sale, Russia this week rejected a U.S. call to end cooperation in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, southern Iran. The Russians say the plant has no relation to any Iranian effort to develop weapons. Iran insists that its entire nuclear program is aimed at producing energy, not arms.
Despite the U.S.-Russian tensions, Burns played down the international divisions over what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions. After Iran's announcement last week that it had begun the enrichment of uranium, Burns said he detected a "change in atmosphere" and a new "sense of urgency" among the major world powers during his discussions about Iran this week in Moscow with officials representing not only Russia but also China, Britain, France and Germany.
"We all agreed that while we're willing to support efforts to see civil nuclear power made available to the Iranian people, none of us are willing to see a nuclear weapons capability produced," Burns said.
At the same time, Burns acknowledged a lack of agreement on "the specific tactical way forward."
With diplomacy now centered in the U.N. Security Council, council members are due to receive on April 28 a report on Iran's nuclear activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States, along with Britain and France, expect the report to open the way to U.N. sanctions against Iran.
But Russia appeared to harden its opposition to sanctions yesterday. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said such measures should be considered only if "concrete facts" emerge that Iran's nuclear program is not exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Burns said a meeting of senior political officers from the Security Council's five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- has been scheduled May 2 to consider the next diplomatic moves against Iran. In addition, he said, the leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations intend to focus on Iran during their July summit.
But given the potential for continued stalemate, Burns raised the possibility that some nations might act against Iran without waiting for a Security Council agreement.
"It's not beyond the realm of the possible that at some point in the future, a group of countries could get together, if the Security Council is not able to act, to take collective economic action or collective action on sanctions," he said. "That's important, because those that might prevent the Security Council from acting effectively need to understand that the international community has to find a way, and will find a way, to express our displeasure with the Iranians."
Joining Burns at the news conference yesterday, Robert Joseph, the State Department's arms control chief, sought to underscore a sense of urgency. He said the Iranians "have put both feet on the accelerator" toward developing nuclear weapons. He expressed particular concern that Iran's announcement about enriched uranium signals that it is acquiring the capability of running centrifuges over a sustained period of time.
"We are very close to that point of no return," which will enable Iran to make nuclear weapons, Joseph said.
On Thursday, the administration's director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, called Iran's enrichment claims "troublesome." But, in a talk at the National Press Club, he added that Iran is "a number of years off . . . probably the next decade" before it would have enough fissile material for a weapon, and that "we need to keep this in perspective."